The Dark Labyrinth

"Elevens," Boulder, 2015

"Elevens," Boulder, 2015

It seems to me that when you have exhausted action (which is always destructive) and people and the material things, there comes a great empty gap. That is what you have reached — the great hurtle which stands on this side of the real joyous life of the inside self. Then comes illumination — dear, oh dear. I know it sounds nonsense, but it’s the poverty of language that is at fault. What do you think the medical term for William Blake would be? A euphoric? A hysterical pycnik? It’s too absurd. The next few years will be a crisis not only for you but your generation too. You are approaching spiritual puberty — the world is. It is hard going I know — but there is always work ahead, I have found. Yet there is a merciful law by which nothing heavier than you can bear is ever put upon you. Remember it! It is not the burden which causes you pain — the burden of excessive sensibility — but the degree of your refusal to accept responsibility for it. That sets up stress and conflict. It sounds balls, doesn’t it? Well, so does St. John of the Cross, I suppose.
— Lawrence Durrell, The Dark Labyrinth (1947)

Dear Everybody,

Once upon a time I was on the internet searching for evidence of a human being I used to know, whose writing and style of living I greatly admired. I found the evidence I was looking for, and — according to the internet — s/he had changed a great deal. Now, setting aside the rather uncomfortable fact that I was looking for somebody without trying to contact them (which, by the way, seems to be the internet's preeminent suggestion), I found something s/he wrote about her/his current occupation:

I like the way I see the world when I do this.

This was the person I remembered, awake to the meaning of what is being done — and what is possible to do — right now. And that statement is something to live by. The "changes" were evidence of my own superficiality. S/he was living lighter than ever. No more strategies. Pure style. Love. Here's St. John of the Cross:

In the evening of life, we will be judged on love alone.

The "pure style" of love and the "evening of life" pertain to something I have been struggling with: The sheer availability of "light," all that which makes life "apparent," literally and figuratively. Why struggle against this? Because strangely enough it can obscure the more personal (more interior and deeply resonant) calls to action: the heart's call, the gut's call, the lungs' call: rhythm, hunger, breath. I am not trying to make fancy thoughts about judging a book by it's cover. Nor am I trying to romanticize what's vague and nebulous. The heart, the gut, and the lungs issue ineluctable, specific commands. They have a lot to do with where language comes from. Perhaps my question for all of us constantly chewing on light is this: When one looks, how does one see?

Language readily presents us with the opportunity to look beyond its own modality. In other words, language is transcendent, it helps us effect changes beyond itself. This is a miracle. A barista calls out a drink order — "small latte for Candace" — and someone (hopefully Candace) comes and retrieves their drink. A transcendent event. We get used to this kind of transcendence; we practice this kind of utility; we use language to do almost everything. It gets easier and easier to forget that language is involved, period. In American politics, language is used to garner votes; in American business, language is used to garner profits. We become ruthlessly positivistic. We (consciously or otherwise) rule out the sublimity of language, it's bodies and rhythms and... beauty.

Faced with nonstop transactions and material impulses, it takes a special effort to recognize, appreciate, and admire the word for what it is. Poets make this effort at acknowledging (and living by) language itself. The greatest poets love language, and not abstractly, and not casually. They hone their love by reading deeply, speaking intentionally, writing honestly, and more. I would argue that this kind of loving practice is especially prescient, utterly and immediately crucial to the integrity of all the world's cultures. Because language, the ultimate human tool, confuses us now more than ever. And we despair and continually destroy one another.

It's both proper and ironic that poets are blamed for making language do confusing things. Proper because strange language for strangeness' sake can be both flippant and vain. Ironic because poets are actively looking beyond utility for the source of our communicative abilities. Our incessant tunneling towards usefulness heaps confusion upon the process of self-discovery.

We are all one, we are all an imperiled essence. If at the far end of the world a spirit degenerates, it drags down our spirit into its own degradation. If one mind at the far end of the world sinks into idiocy, our own temples over-brim with darkness.
— Nikos Kazantzakis, The Saviors of God (1923)

We are past the point of no return, in language and otherwise. This species is unbelievably abundant, and it would be foolish to try and run away from that fact. There is truly nowhere left to hide (if ever there was) from our effects on this planet, terrific and terrible alike. So we cannot use language to advance like robots towards material indestructibility. And we cannot use language to retreat to the womb of preverbal myth. We are tasked with the responsible use of the word. What does that mean? What is the burden we must accept? Who will show us how to bear it? Are we lost in the mirror?

In conclusion, I extend my profound and exhilarated gratitude to everyone who has anonymously offered up lines in response to "What is memorable about contemporary poetry?" — they have proven timely and uplifting. I'd like to leave the call open for another week or so — please consider sending the post to people who may be interested in participating — and will share a more-or-less direct meditation on all the offerings before the end of the month.

Yours like a piano by the sea,

⎯ Joe